Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Pleasant Landscapes


Alan Oxley has been hearing a lot about "ethical" business decisions lately, and he's skeptical. The paradox here -- the aporia, if you will -- is that "denying opportunities for growth is clearly unethical."

Palm oil plantations are a good case in point. "Environmentalists" keep saying they're "bad," because they lead to "deforestation" and the "destruction" of "habitat." But consider this:

[Palm oil] is a basic food product for the poor in the developing world.
Here, then, are two competing visions of the future: in one, the Virtuous Poor are burdened with acres of redundant forest comprising rocks and dirt and poisonous snakes. In the other, they're blessed with as much palm oil as they can drink. From a humanitarian standpoint, the choice is clear.

Besides, it's not transnational agribusiness that's bulldozing forests in the developing world; it's poor people who need food and firewood.
Researchers at the Food and Agricultural Organization report regularly that deforestation in developing countries is result of the search for firewood and land to house and feed people.
And besides that, Europe and North America had similar economic incentives for hacking down their own forests -- in addition to the Third World's -- and everything turned out just ducky, as demonstrated by the fact that you're probably reading these words in a reasonably modern house filled with electronic gadgetry.
This was how Europe and North America developed, and it is how the Third World is growing too. The Malaysian government promoted palm oil, making it the world's largest producer for several years as a deliberate and successful strategy to provide prosperity and economic security to previously landless workers.
The Malaysian government's seal of approval should be enough for anyone; after all, Malaysia has been reaping the benefits of palm-oil production ever since this sturdy West African plant was first turned into a cash crop by foreign entrepreneurs under British colonial rule.

Still, a few Negative Nellies persist in wringing their hands over the "loss" of "biodiversity." These people don't seem to realize that this battle is already over, and we won:
Five years ago the U.N. concluded that the biodiversity target of preserving 10% of the world's forests had been reached. There is more forest preserved in the developing world now than in Europe.
That being the case, how can anyone seriously object to additional deforestation? There's only one possible explanation:
This is now merely a campaign to satisfy a Western urge to see pleasant landscapes.
If you thought that colonialism had something to do with exploiting Third World resources and labor while patting oneself on the back for "civilizing" the natives, think again: the real colonialists are those Western snobs whose languid aestheticism is interfering with the world-healing operations of Cargill.

Like Martin Durkin's bolshevist fury at the bourgeois cult of global warming, and Brenden O'Neill's radical critique of eco-imperialism, Oxley's article showcases the growing usefulness of left-wing clich├ęs to corporatist shills. Soon enough, I'm sure, we'll see child labor on cocoa plantations justified with quotes from Frantz Fanon, and Tom DeLay characterizing opposition to Saipan sweatshops as a new and worse form of Orientalism.

It may be that Oxley's happy talk about food and prosperity and biodiversity doesn't impress you much. If so, forget about it, and focus on the bottom line:
Shareholders ultimately rate companies by the business they do, not the causes they support.
A sobering message indeed. We're very fortunate that in this case, a profitable business opportunity also happens to be the salvation of the poor and a boon to the environment. Because if it weren't, we couldn't necessarily trust CEOs and shareholders to listen to humanitarian and environmental arguments against cashing in.

5 comments:

Southern Beale said...

I've seen palm plantations in Costa Rica. They're hideous and they destroy the natural vegetation. But they do employ people in sweat shop like conditions.

You know, I've never eaten palm oil in Costa Rica. But I do know that a lot of palm oil is used for industrial purposes, like making soap.

Ethics, shmethics.

Dr Pop said...

That's a very well written article. Rarely do I read one that gives voice to the people.. It is always about orang utans. Palm oil, in a humanitarian standpoint feeds many in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Besides, first world countries had alrady been through deforestation way back for survival and development too, why now protest against developing countries? They too should have the right to develop their countries, no?

This article shows how Malaysia percentage of poverty dropped from 50% to 5%:
http://www.palmoilconsumer.com/Society/From-Pauper-To-Prince.aspx

Phila said...

why now protest against developing countries? They too should have the right to develop their countries, no?

There are many possible ways for countries to develop, and many possible ways of allocating the benefits and costs of that development. Trying to equate a specific economic arrangement with Progress, and acting like the only other option is to forego prosperity altogether, is one of the oldest, shoddiest rhetorical tricks in the book. If you think you've found someone who's dim enough to fall for it, I can assure you that you're mistaken.

It's comforting but incorrect to assume that people in the developing world aren't concerned about deforestation and biodiversity. Indigenous people and local activists who are fighting the palm-oil industry also live in the countries in question, and also feel that they have rights. I linked to one story about them in this post. There are plenty of others, if you're interested.

If you prefer to listen to Oxley, and aren't troubled by his logical errors, that's fine. Pretending that his views are authoritative, and that he speaks on behalf of the world's poor, is not my idea of giving "voice to the people," but suit yourself.

Meanwhile, I'm going to stick to the following radical, counterintuitive views: natural resources aren't inexhaustible and interchangeable; the health of ecosystems isn't irrelevant to human health and prosperity; and there are local, regional, and global limits to growth, regardless of how shareholders and corporate shills feel about it.

joel hanes said...

The best thing we can do for the welfare of the people of the developing world (and for ourselves) is to help provide them (and ourselves) with universal access to cheap, reliable contraception, and to help make sure that their girls (and our girls) learn to read and to do math.

And this is because many of their problems and our problems share a common root cause: there are far too many human beings already on this planet for all of them to live sustainably and not in poverty.

Phila said...

And this is because many of their problems and our problems share a common root cause: there are far too many human beings already on this planet for all of them to live sustainably and not in poverty.

While I agree with your prescriptions, it's also true that enforced poverty and inequity have been near-constant problems throughout history, regardless of world population. So overpopulation, in itself, doesn't seem to be the root issue. Even when resources are comparatively plentiful, there are incentives for hoarding, monopoly, demonizing specific groups, etc. Population reduction is necessary, definitely, but it's not a magic bullet against poverty, I don't think.

That said, you're absolutely right that it's crucial to dismantle misogynistic policies, and increase women's autonomy and influence worldwide.